SPAR TO BECOME A BETTER FIGHTER
It’s a mistake — a serious one, even though it is understandable — to dismiss prearranged sparring as a sterile, unnecessary aspect of karate training.
I used the word “understandable” because if you don’t have a realistic perspective on the place of prearranged sparring in the dojo, it can seem fake. You bow and take a stance. The attacker issues a strike that you both know is coming, and you respond with a block and counter. Reallife altercations are seldom that neatly arranged. Free sparring seems more spontaneous and natural. There’s no designated attacker or defender, and the participants freely switch roles. It feels more authentic.
To be sure, sparring without a script has some advantages. There are also severe limitations. Stresses introduced by the dangers of free exchanges can lead you to narrow the range of your techniques. You tend to focus on moves with which you’re comfortable. You don’t expand your repertoire. In free sparring, you polish what you’re already competent with and ignore your weaknesses.
In contrast, when the scenario is laid out, when you know what attacks will come and how you’re expected to respond, you can be forced to employ techniques you’d otherwise ignore. You strengthen and broaden your repertoire. Furthermore, within the structure of prearranged sparring, there’s an opportunity to explore many avenues of karate that normally would be closed.
In Japanese, prearranged sparring is called yakusoku kumite. Yakusoku means “agreement.” There are several versions of this, including one-, two- and three-step kumite. An interesting variation is happo kumite. Happo means “eight directions,” but its connotation here is “many.”
HAPPO: Place yourself in the middle of multiple attackers — four is a good number. Begin with clear directions: The first opponent will execute a front kick that you must avoid or
No matter which style of karate you favor, the advice offered here will improve your understanding of your art, not to mention your performance in the dojo. — Editors
When the scenario is laid out, when you know what attacks will come and how you’re expected to respond, you can be forced to employ techniques you’d otherwise ignore.
block, after which you counter. The second opponent proceeds with a face-level punch that you must deal with the same way: block and counter. And so on. Everyone should be clear on the sequence.
The attacks are limited. The responses can be anything you, the person in the center, wish. The second attacker doesn’t begin until the �irst attack and counter are completed. All movements are slow and focused but without power. In a real sense, this is choreography, like rehearsing a movie �ight scene.
Stop there, at that level, and the bene�its of happo kumite are limited. This is only the start, however. Once you have the moves down, speed up the sequences. Attacks should come faster, and the intervals between attacks should become shorter. As soon as you counter the �irst attack, the second one is launched. You’re forced to respond more quickly.
At an even higher level, the attackers choose their own techniques. They also can change up the sequence, varying who attacks �irst so you can never know from which direction the next assault will come.
A bene�it of happo kumite isn’t immediately obvious, but it’s important. The attackers, rather than being just mobile punching bags for you, play an essential role because no matter how good you are, you can be overwhelmed by multiple opponents coming from different angles. If the attackers become thoughtless or too aggressive, they’ll force you to �lail about — or just cower. At this point, you’re learning nothing because you’re not engaging in the training.
If, however, the attackers are participating thoughtfully, they can play a constructive role. They need to graduate their strength and power carefully, pressing you without destroying your spirit or compromising your technique. The attackers need to be constantly engaged, evaluating you, pushing you to improve without going too far. In fact, they can learn as much as you can from this kind of training. They learn to observe, to sense your mindset. Even though the roles of attacker and defender seem at odds, both sides are working together, each learning valuable lessons.
MAKE YOUR BLOCK MORE THAN A BLOCK
Attention! Use extreme caution when attempting this drill.
Begin by having your partner step forward with his right foot while aiming a punch at your chest. Step back with your right foot, taking a left-leg-forward stance. While doing that, use your left arm to make a midlevel block that de�lects his punch to your right. At the same time, pull your right �ist back to your hip. Next, shuf�le forward, maintaining a left forward stance, and deliver a right reverse punch to his midsection.
If you’ve practiced karate for long, you’ve probably worked this combination a thousand times — perhaps so often that it’s hard-wired into you. You don’t normally think about it, but let’s do that for a moment.
Why do you step back? What if you step into the attack? When you step back, the distance is such that your left forearm, in the block, strikes your opponent’s attacking limb along the forearm. This is helpful in training. Forearms are relatively tough, and partners can move back and forth across the �loor striking and blocking. Beginners may experience some soreness and bruises the next day, but more experienced karateka will be �ine.
If you step forward to make your block, however, that ideal distance changes. Your vertical forearm will strike your opponent’s elbow. Now, we all know that “blocking” is a misnomer in karate, a poor translation of ukeru, which means “to receive.” Moving forward and striking the elbow with your block does a lot more than redirect your opponent’s attack. It does damage, perhaps severe, to the attacking arm. It’s meant to injure.
When you step back to make the receiving movement, the relative distance stays the same. Test this, and you’ll see that you redirect the punch away from you — but you do little to take his balance. This is a serious �law in teaching movements we describe as blocking. Often, they do little more than redirect the weapon, in this case his �ist. But if he has the ability to reorganize, he’ll do so instantly. He can even use the force of your de�lection to �low into a new attack.
Blocking is a defensive movement. It’s playing catch-up, hoping to �ind an opening to make a counter. Stepping back reinforces this mindset. When you step in and use your forearm to strike your opponent’s elbow, you’re de�lecting his attack. You’re also destroying the weapon.
Why not teach this? Because it’s dangerous. Introduce it in a typical dojo with 10 pairs of karateka, and very quickly you’ll have elbows broken, dislocated and sprained. If you’re going to experiment with this, you need to know your opponent’s skill level, his attitude and his mentality.
One of the lamest clichés in the martial arts is “My art is so deadly I can’t even demonstrate it.” No, it isn’t that karate, at a high level, is too deadly. It’s that practitioners, even at a relatively high level, are still too undependable to be able to engage in it at full speed and power without exercising extreme care.
CAVEAT: I’m not suggesting that stepping back in the face of an attack is always inferior. It can be very effective, particularly if you use your hips. Once again, however, unless the training is careful and controlled, someone’s going to get hurt. And once again, blocking, in the sense of using your forearm to de�lect the opponent’s strike at his own forearm, is not the intent.
When you’re retreating, a blocking movement is better employed as a pulling motion. Think not so much about moving back but about making a hole into which you’re drawing your opponent. He’s extending an attack; you’re encountering it and pulling him — hard. Your forearm slides down from the initial position and brings your hand on top of his wrist, providing the grip you need. Your pull cannot be gentle; it needs to yank him off-balance. It isn’t a straight-line pull; the motion draws his arm so it crosses his own center, further destroying his equilibrium.
When a person attacks with full commitment, only to have you suddenly retreat, taking the attacking arm with you and redirecting the force of the punch across his body, it’s like grabbing the handle of a heavy open door, only to have it suddenly slam shut. It jerks you with it in a direction that comes close to taking you off your feet.
This movement doesn’t take a lot of power. You can generate terri�ic force with the sudden movement of your hips as you step back. If you try to yank your opponent with your arm, he can easily feel your energy and adapt to it. Avoid that by making the pull quick and strong, powered by the large muscles in your hips.
LEARN WHEN TO STAY ON YOUR TOES
Put this one in the “obscure” category of karate techniques. Kicking with the toes is no longer taught in most dojo; in others, it was never part of training. There are a few Japanese karate systems that teach these kicks. Mostly, however, we associate them with Okinawan karate.
The obvious question is, Why? Most of us dislike hard contact with the toes. Stubbing a toe isn’t high on anyone’s “like” list. Further, the ball of the foot or the heel offer much more solid, much less potentially painful weapons, just as a closed �ist is a safer, more effective way to use your hand compared to striking with the �ingertips.
But think about the potential of a strike in which all �ive �ingertips are pressed together, making a bird-beak shape. Such a strike delivered to the neck or another soft, nerverich target is powerful and penetrating. The same applies to toe kicks. If an opponent is doubled over in front of you as a result of your previous attack, a kick with the toes — especially if you’re wearing shoes — that hits his diaphragm or abdomen can be devastating.
Yes, but isn’t there a big difference between toe kicking while wearing shoes and toe kicking with bare feet? There is. To kick effectively with the toes requires a lot of training. Chances are if you’re an experienced karateka, as soon as you lift your knee to kick forward, your toes curl back, exposing the ball of your foot. A toe kick requires you to keep your toes straight and your entire foot parallel to the ground. Your lower leg doesn’t hinge up from the knee. Instead, it goes straight out, delivering the toes on target in a line rather than a rising arc.
Some Okinawan systems teach kicking with only the big toe. Others involve squeezing the �irst and second toes together to form a delta-shaped weapon. In either case, the technique requires a lot of training, stretching and strengthening of the muscles of the foot.
Toe kicks are usually delivered toward the lower half of your opponent’s body, although some karateka chamber their knee high enough to drive their toes into their foe’s ribs or below his sternum. Such techniques can be effective against any target that has nerves close to the surface. For example, grappling locks that extend a captured arm, pulling an opponent so he’s bent over, expose the inside of the upper arm to a toe kick that can temporary paralyze the entire limb. Toes driven into the inside of the knee or the area just above it can take a person to the ground with a combination of pain and nerve paralysis. Toe kicks directed at the thigh can disrupt normal nerve functions, making a person collapse.
There’s something about toe kicks that looks odd to the average karateka. To see such moves implemented by a skilled practitioner, however, with the toes driving into soft �lesh with the potential for injury to organs or joints, is to see why one way of describing them in Japanese is ashi-yari, or “foot spear.”
HISTORY: Stories about toe kicks abound in Okinawan karate. Some are almost certainly in the realm of legend, while others have a grounding in historical fact. One of the latter involves Ankichi Arakaki (1899-1927), who was famous for toe kicking. On at least two occasions, he used the technique, once while sparring with his brother and once in a �ight with a renowned practitioner of Okinawan wrestling. In the �irst encounter, Ankichi aimed his kick at his brother’s ankle. In the second, a �ight that supposedly took place in a bar and was one Ankichi did his best to avoid, the target was just below the wrestler’s armpit. Both men suffered symptoms that resembled those of an aneurysm. The wrestler actually died within a few days.
Hohan Soken (1889-1982) was perhaps the most pro�icient Okinawan karate expert who used the toe kick. His whitecrane system, with soft (looking), �lowing moves, still teaches toe kicks. They’re often combined with movements that unbalance the attacker, causing him to drop his guard or perhaps open it, thus allowing penetration with a toe kick.
FOCUS ON THE SPIN KICK
The spinning heel kick is one of the most artistic martial moves. It looks graceful and generates tremendous power. Recently, some MMA �ighters have worked to perfect their spinning kick because it hits like a baseball bat. Opponents are knocked down or completely out when the heel connects.
The origin of the spinning heel kick is hard to determine. The move is an extravagance of energy. It requires you to turn your back on your opponent. It’s most effective against the head. All these argue for not including it in the arsenal of a combative art designed primarily for real �ighting. It appeared most prominently in taekwondo when the art became popular in the 1960s and ’70s. As the style became more widespread, the spinning kick became more sophisticated.
Most of us dislike hard contact with the toes. Stubbing a toe isn’t high on anyone’s “like” list. Further, the ball of the foot or the heel offer much more solid, much less potentially painful weapons.
Early free-style percussive arts with open, full-contact matches had little use for the spinning heel kick, mainly for the reasons mentioned above. As those arts continued to grow, however, they began to incorporate the technique. The power it offered was too great to ignore, which is why MMA practitioners have started implementing it.
The spinning heel kick was never in the repertoire of Japanese karate, and it’s important for us to think about why that is. The Japanese combat arts have among their core principles one known as kime. In the dojo, kime is often translated as “focus.” In everyday Japanese, kime (or its indicative form kimeru) means “to decide.”
In a punch, kime is the exact point at which all energy is directed, extended, focused. In an art that involves throwing, kime comes the moment your opponent’s balance has been compromised so completely he cannot resist. Apply focus, and the throw is effected at that very moment. Kime is that crucial point at which the intent of the technique is put into a decisive action.
Techniques like the spinning heel kick do not have kime. The extended leg is rotating; where the heel contacts the target is not precise. For that reason, the kick wasn’t part of traditional Japanese karate.
TWO POINTS: First, to say that the spinning heel kick doesn’t have kime is not to say it’s ineffective. Too often karate practitioners develop an arrogance, a belief that theirs is the ultimate art. To be fair, practitioners of other arts develop the same delusions, but the point is that any �ight- ing art can be effective and dangerous and that you should never judge that potential by applying the standards of your own art.
Second, the underlying principles of your art are there for a reason. They give structure. Without that framework, you cannot build your own system.
If you have access to a library of karate books, you can see that, back in the early ’80s, some Japanese karate schools began to incorporate the spinning heel kick into their curriculum. I have a text on what was then called “Korean karate” from the late ’60s, and one of the techniques it illustrates is the “hook kick.” The earliest reference I have of a similar kick in Japanese karate was not until the mid-’80s, and the explanation for it is muddled. Clearly, the authors had seen the Korean spinning heel kick, recognized its usefulness and tried to incorporate it. They couldn’t reconcile its execution, however, with the principles of their art, particularly the principle of kime.
Of course, the possibility exists that some dedicated karateka will �igure out a way to execute the spinning heel kick so it allows for the proper manipulation of kime. Principles give a �ighting art structure, but they shouldn’t squeeze it into a box. That’s why karate is not the closed tradition many believe it to be. It can grow and change, so long as the principles are maintained.